Clare B. Dunkle

Sample Chapters from In the Coils of the Snake

By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.

Duck pond at Chatsworth, England

This page contains the prologue, second chapter, and third chapter from In the Coils of the Snake, the last volume of The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy.


"But why do you have to die tomorrow?"

The great round throne room was empty. No crowds thronged its floor, and the paving tiles of rose, cream, and serpentine marble displayed their dizzying patterns. The polished walls of red and green porphyry gleamed vermilion and olive in the light from the chandeliers, and the eighteen colossal black granite columns that held up the golden dome glittered with countless flecks of silver mica.

Only two people occupied this room that could hold hundreds, this vast chamber designed to contain the business of a realm. An old goblin sat on the throne that stood upon the dais, and a human girl of seventeen knelt before him, their voices damped into whispers by the expanse of space and the velvet and brocade curtains that hung before alcoves and doors. He was ugly and bony, with dull straight hair that fell to his shoulders, and his unmatched eyes gleamed like coals, one green and one black. She was statuesque and beautiful, with brown eyes and auburn hair, and her delicate pink skin contrasted with his gray fingers as she clasped his hands tightly in hers.

"Why tomorrow? Why so soon?" she asked. "Couldn't you die next week?"

Marak just smiled at her.

"Catspaw has waited his whole life to be King," he said. "I've ruled for more than half a century now, and it's time I passed the power on. There will be new advisers, new projects, the bustle of retirements and appointments, new fashions, too, I wouldn't doubt. There will be energy in this room again, with a young, dynamic King—mistakes, quarrels, absurd plans—I can hardly wait to die and set it all in motion." He didn't mention his inability to eat and sleep now, his failing magic, his labored breathing. These things, he thought, were entirely beside the point.

"Miranda." The young woman looked up at him, her eyes full of pain and grief. By the Sword, she was magnificent, he thought proudly. He had trained her from the cradle to take her place in his underground kingdom, and she would not disappoint him.

"Miranda, three months from tomorrow will be the ceremony that makes you a King's Wife. I've thought it best to keep you and Catspaw at a distance, but you'll find him to be a gifted ruler and a good man. He doesn't have my temper. He's more like Kate. And he's completely devoted to those he loves."

The young woman listened gravely. "I like Catspaw," she whispered.

Marak nodded his approval. "Ruling a kingdom is hard, especially at first," he continued. "The new King will need your encouragement. And your people will watch everything you do. They'll look to you for help, for comfort, for a thousand different things. You've grown up knowing this, and I'm sure you'll meet your obligations."

"I will," she promised softly. A tear sparkled on her eyelashes before slipping down her cheek. Marak watched it with idle interest. He thought it made a very pretty effect.

"Can I stay with you?" she asked, but the old goblin shook his head.

"No, the time I have left belongs to Kate. You need to leave now, but I want you to come to the crypt in the morning so that I can say good-bye."

Quiet, unmoving, in an agony of suffering, Miranda stared at the gray hands holding hers. Her guardian had always been there to guide her. Now, in less than a day, he would be gone. All that learning, all that brilliance lost, like galaxies disbanding. Like a universe collapsing into dust.

"I want to come with you," she said miserably.

The goblin King's eyebrows went up, and he chuckled at this absurdity. "But, Miranda, I don't know where I'm going!"

"I don't care," she said quickly. "I want to be with you. All my life, I wanted to come home with you, and you always made me wait, but you promised that I could one day. And then, when I finally did, it was for such a short time, and now—" She stopped herself with an effort.

Unperturbed, Marak gave her hands a little shake. "Catspaw will be all that to you," he said. "I certainly didn't raise you to escort me to the grave. You're going to be a King's Wife in a thousand, Miranda! What a pity I won't be here to see you."

The lovely girl mastered herself again. She even managed to smile. Then she turned and left him, crossing that empty desert of colored marble under the great golden dome.


[In which Marak dies, and Catspaw becomes King. Omitted from this set of sample chapters.]


In the short time that Miranda had been in the goblin caves, Marak had kept his ward very much to himself, determined that Catspaw would hold for her the thrill of the unknown. Miranda had lived quietly in an apartment on the elves' floor, content with her ongoing studies and Marak's daily visits. If she had seen almost nothing of Catspaw, she had seen very little else of goblin life, either.

Now the girl found herself propelled to the very center of goblin society. The new King kept her by his side at every social occasion, and the fascinated monsters thronged around her. Miranda played her part to perfection, exhibiting the fine manners and graciousness that Marak had drilled into her. She hid her true feelings from everyone—including, at first, from herself.

Because the fact of the matter was that many goblins were hideous. They didn't just look funny, as Marak had always said. There were deformities among them that sent a chill down Miranda's spine, a shock such as she might have felt at the sight of a corpse. She could barely swallow food in their company.

There was the goblin, for instance, with the huge flat head, burly arms, and tiny body. His doll's legs dangled uselessly a foot above the ground as he swung himself from place to place on his hands. There was the genial little goblin with the common abnormality, eyes of two different colors. One of his eyes was dark brown, twinkling with good humor. But the other eye was huge and blood-red. And there was an entire family of goblins who were the color of dark gray earth, with the look of things too long underground. Their hairless heads were round and bulbous, like soft rubber balls. Their pale eyes bulged alarmingly, as if they were being strangled.

Seen in the light of an honest day, these forms would have been frightful enough, but far worse was their appearance in the thick shadows of the kingdom. At any moment, Miranda might turn a corner in the dim hallways of the palace and find herself face-to-face with a horror she had never even imagined. And when she met it, she had to remember to smile.

It didn't occur to the girl that Marak's death had left her overwrought and that her repugnance was compounded by her grief. All Miranda knew was that she was pretending to be happy when she had thought at last her hiding and pretending would be over. She had looked forward all her life to coming to Marak's kingdom and being a King's Wife. She had never once considered that it might be difficult.

The long years of protecting herself from her brutal mother guided her conduct now. Miranda smiled her way through to the end of each day, and no one knew she was pretending. The callous goblins never hid their feelings, so they didn't doubt her performance. Seylin or Kate might have seen through the act, but they were too busy, and they had their own sorrow.

Little by little, Miranda felt herself sinking beneath the weight of her own perfect manners. Her smile seemed frozen on her face, like a lead mask that she couldn't remove. She was performing on a stage that she couldn't leave. She could never step out into the sunlight. And where her appreciative audience should have been, cheering her on, there was only the silence of death.

What a pity, he had said to her. What a pity I won't be here to see you.

"I want to see Marak's grave," she announced one morning to the dwarf in charge of the Kings' crypt. The little creature stroked his long white beard. Then he led her through the hallways to the thick, leaden door that closed off the end of the crypt.

"He doesn't have anything graved," he pointed out. "There's not a thing graved anywhere amongst the lot of them. It's not allowed, you see—no names or nothing. Shame, really. Your stone, though, it's graven real nice. I got to help on that one."

Miranda pushed from her mind the thought of her own marble headstone, placed in the Hallow Hill graveyard when Marak had taken her away from home. He had worked a spell on the whole community to make them dream her funeral. It was uncomfortable to remember that her own family thought that she was dead.

She followed the diminutive man down the twisting path of the narrow, chilly cavern, watching nervously as his torch pushed away the inky blackness of the never-ending night. He kept up a cheerful patter, pointing at the all-but-invisible tombs. "That one, he was eight feet tall from the tips of his horns to his cloven hooves." Miranda tried her best not to listen.

They came to the turn of the cavern where the last tomb was, and Miranda's grief hit her like a blow. Right here, he had stood and said good-bye. Then, he had turned and walked away from her.

"This will be for the new King," the dwarf noted, gesturing at a rocky outcrop with his torch. The shadows dipped and swayed with the torchlight, rushing around the cave walls, and Miranda's nerves stretched taut.

"If you don't mind," she said, "I'd like to be alone with him."

"With who?" The dwarf peered past her in surprise.

"With him." She pointed at the tomb, and the dwarf's expression cleared.

"Oh, him! Now, that's what I call being alone. I'll be right outside then, making sure the door don't shut. I'd hate to think of you locked up in here. I'd get in no end of trouble."

He started off, and the shadows leaned to embrace her. Miranda gasped in alarm.

"Your torch!" she called, and remembered just in time to give him a smile as he turned around. "I'm afraid I need to borrow it." She took the smooth pole from him and was rather surprised at its weight; it was stone, not wood, and top-heavy as well. Its flame, she realized, came from something like a match head, coated with a chemical that burned.

The little man took his pickax from his belt, and the blade lit with a clear white light. Miranda watched it bob away up the winding path. She sat down next to Marak's tomb and laid her head on the sloping lid, resting the bottom tip of the torch on the ground. The rocks within the circle of torchlight were dull and sandy-pale, devoid of interest or appeal. "Marak," she whispered, but no answer came. She wouldn't find comfort there.

"I never knew you were going to leave," she continued. "I thought you'd always be with me." The echoes of her whisper hissed up and down the cave, turning corners and coming back again.

"You wanted to go," she accused the empty darkness. "You were happy about dying. First you made me a stranger to my family, and then you brought me to all these strangers, and then you couldn't wait to leave."

Her reserve was breaking down. The smile had cracked off her face. The manners that had carried her through began to desert her.

"I told you I didn't want to stay here without you," she insisted. "I told you I want to be with you. It's so hard here, and I'm tired, so tired of it all! Please come back and take me with you."

There was no reply, only the echoes, like a thousand snakes, crawling around the edges of the cave. Nothing changed in the bright, blank circle of torchlight, and nothing changed in the darkness beyond. Miranda felt her despair and isolation rise up to choke her.

"Marak!" she cried, beating on the tomb with her fist. "Come back and take me with you!"

The tomb lid reverberated like a drum with deep, sonorous booms that swelled into a rumbling roar. They seemed to shake the cave walls, to come from the earth under her feet. Miranda stopped, startled, but the noise only increased, its echoes resounding like thunder. Too late, she remembered that every goblin King was named Marak. When she had called him, she had called them all.

She started to her feet, but the top-heavy torch slipped from her grasp, shattering in an explosion of sparks. Flaming pieces rolled away and fizzled out, and the shadows leapt upon her. Marak's tomb vanished in the darkness.

Miranda seized the largest piece of torch that still burned and held it up in trembling fingers. She could still see just the hint of a path in the wavering rays of light. Would the dwarf hear her if she called to him, or would the echoes just come shrieking back? At any moment, the last flames might go out and leave her trapped in the dark.

She started up the path, staggering a little, her feet clumsy and heavy, as if she were a puppet trying to work her own strings. Reflexively, she clutched the piece of splintered stone, trying to navigate the cavern by its flickering light. She kept herself to a walk, reasoning with her terror. Another stumble, and the light would be gone for good.

Past the King with the bat wings who had choked to death on mutton. Past the King whose fingers had ended in hooks. The waning gleam barely suggested a path, and the rock formations beside her seemed like tall, twisted shapes. She tried not to see them as centuries-old bodies, lining the way to watch her pass. She tried not to hear the echoes in the cavern as the shuffling of long-unused feet. You don't want to die yet, her pounding heart told her. You don't want to be with him after all. But Miranda kept her eyes on the path before her and spoke no more words to the dead.

She stumbled through the doorway and into the tunnel beyond it, lit with the warm glow of hanging lamps. Only then did she feel a painful throb and look down to find blood on her hand. She had split her knuckles open hammering on Marak's tomb.

"What happened to you?" asked the dwarf, peering at her interestedly.

Miranda was far too upset to smile at him this time. "Do you hear anyone following me?" she gasped.

He chuckled. "No. That's just your fancy. Those Kings—they're dead. They don't go following people about anymore."

Of course. How absurd. Miranda felt her face grow hot as she blushed. But the shaken girl had no time to nurse her injured feelings or her hand. Marak Catspaw was giving her a tour of the Kings' trophy rooms that morning, and her visit to the crypt threatened to make her late. She felt a little frantic at the idea of keeping a King waiting. Twisting her handkerchief around the bloody hand, she hurried off.

Catspaw was already there when she arrived, studying the various display cases in the first of the long, low rooms, but the courteous goblin didn't seem annoyed with her. Miranda apologized prettily, aware that the King would interpret her shaking hands and flushed cheeks as anxiety over causing offense. While he led her from case to case, explaining obscure points of history, Miranda began to calm down. The frightening episode receded from her mind as she concentrated on the task of making witty conversation in order to charm her royal fiancé.

They spent several hours in the quiet trophy rooms. To her escort, the place clearly represented both a legacy and a challenge. These galleries had become, over the centuries, the kingdom's national museum, and each King selected one or two exhibits to add from his own reign. Marak had added a display about the sorcerer and a case holding the rags that Irina had worn on the night she arrived. They were a sad testament, he had thought, to the end of the elves.

"I wonder what exhibits will date from my time," mused Catspaw as they examined a display of elvish weaponry. "I wonder what stories they'll tell. 'In the reign of Marak Catspaw...' Stories used to begin with both goblin and elf King names, but no longer, of course. That made for a better beginning, and they certainly made the most thrilling tales. There's almost nothing for a goblin King to do these days, with the elves gone. Humans don't make particularly threatening adversaries. The times are dreadfully peaceful."

"Isn't peace best?" asked Miranda. Her suitor responded with a noncommittal shrug.

She was enjoying Catspaw's company. He made her feel important, and his conversation was worldly and knowledgeable. She knit her brows, preparing to turn his offhand comments into a debate, something that both of them relished. But the goblin King interrupted her thoughts.

"What are you doing to your fingers?" he wanted to know, seizing her bandaged hand. Fresh blood stained the wrap. Miranda had been rubbing the skinned knuckles with her thumb, breaking through the dried blood and newly forming scabs.

It was an old habit. She had hoarded her injuries even when she was very small for the pleasure of watching Marak heal them. If he didn't come for several days, she tore open the wounds to make sure they couldn't heal on their own. Later, she had sneaked the nurse-maid's scissors to administer her own cuts. It made her proud to bear pain without a murmur: she felt that she had mastered herself. Some days, when the household was particularly harsh to her, it seemed the only thing she could control.

Miranda's mother had soon guessed what she was doing and had triumphantly denounced the girl to Marak. He didn't seem particularly concerned, but the girl had learned caution. Afterward, she only indulged in the habit when she was really desperate, when her mother was more than usually severe and she hadn't seen Marak for days. She couldn't talk to anyone about him, so she couldn't share her private worries over whether he was ever coming back. Then it was a relief to give herself a small cut to fret over. It wasn't as if she was misbehaving: no one knew what she'd done. And the pain was like a friend, sharing her silent vigil until he returned to heal it.

Now Miranda watched the new goblin King examine her damaged hand. The skinned knuckles were an outlet for her wounded feelings, a focus for her internal pain. If Marak wasn't coming back to mend them, she didn't want them mended at all.

"I think some wounds shouldn't be healed," she proposed.

Catspaw had a high opinion of her intelligence and was ready to be interested in the idea. "Why shouldn't we use magic when it's convenient?" he inquired.

"I'm not magical," said Miranda. "Is it good for a nonmagical body to undergo magic for no reason? These will heal on their own."

"They might scar," observed the goblin King calmly.

She studied the smashed, skinless knuckles. It was true that they weren't a pretty sight. But she felt again that sense of mastery over pain, and the exhilaration of it carried her along. Certainly the straightforward Catspaw had no insight into her complicated feelings on the subject.

"Humans are proud of their scars," she debated. "Scars can be a badge of honor."

At that moment, Seylin walked up beside them, on business with the King. The handsome man caught sight of Miranda's injured knuckles and grimaced in concern. "Miranda, what did you do?" he cried out, genuinely distressed. His reaction was like a splash of cold water. Miranda felt guilty and embarrassed.

"Here's a thought, Seylin," remarked the King with cheerful unconcern. "Should some wounds be left unhealed?"

"No," answered his chief adviser sharply, and Miranda didn't protest when he mended her hand.

Catspaw excused himself and went off with his adviser, leaving Miranda alone. After her traumatic visit to the crypt and Seylin's unpleasant reaction to her wounds, she felt nervous and unstrung. She edged cautiously up the stairs, hoping not to meet anything too revolting, but even the picturesque goblins startled her today. She was relieved to reach her own floor and glad to find that the guard posted there was one of the least distasteful goblins in the kingdom.

Tattoo, Sable's youngest son, had only recently become a member of the King's Guard. His black uniform made him inconspicuous against the dark green marble wall of the hallway. Big and handsome like his father, Tinsel, Tattoo got his name from an unusual feature: many faint black lines criss-crossed his silver face, as if someone had marked it with ink and he hadn't washed it all off. His straight black hair flopped untidily into his blue eyes and about his shoulders.

Miranda liked Tattoo, who had his father's easygoing, friendly manner, and she seized upon his presence as an opportunity. Now, instead of just hiding in her rooms, she could go somewhere more interesting. Facing the deformities in the hallways wasn't nearly so disturbing if she had company along.

Where did she want to go? Miranda loitered in the hallway, considering her choices. There were many fascinating and exotic places in the underground realm, she reminded herself, trying to ignore the nagging whisper that she really wanted to go outside. To leave the goblin caves, to stand in the sunlight again.... Miranda forced the thought away and held her breath. Sometimes the gloomy shadows here seemed almost to choke her, like layers of dark cobwebs winding themselves around her face and throat.

She couldn't leave the caves, so she would do the next best thing. The kingdom contained two places that Miranda thought of as "outdoors." When she had first come through the goblins' front door, she had emerged in what seemed to be a narrow valley, it was so vast a cave. This lamplit, subterranean cavern was called the palace gardens because of its ornamental beds full of jeweled replicas of living plants. Near the goblins' great iron door, a grove of brass and silver trees caught in clever artistry the changing of the seasons. The enormous palace, with its great square windows, overlooked these dark gardens, and a shallow river foamed over rocks at the valley floor.

Did she want to visit the palace gardens? Miranda hesitated. Of all the wonders in the goblin realm, they were the most eerily exquisite, but for all their beauty, she didn't really like them. They were so silent, the colored lamps so faint and ghostly in that black place. They seemed to be frozen in an eternal midnight.

No, she would go look at the other place in the goblin kingdom where one felt that one was outdoors. There, at least, she would find light. "Tattoo, come with me," she ordered, but the big guard looked uneasy.

"I'm not supposed to, King's Bride," he said. "I got in trouble last time. I have to stay at the door. That's my orders."

Miranda frowned at him and folded her arms in imitation of her imperious mother. "Which would you rather do?" she demanded. "Upset me or risk a little trouble?"

"Upset you," answered Tattoo fervently. "Mother found out that I was written up for leaving my post. I think she'll kill me if it happens again."

This Miranda could understand. The two elf women, Sable and Irina, were her neighbors, and they formed the nucleus of a small clan of oddly attractive elvish-looking goblins. Sable was a stern matriarch with very high expectations. She didn't put up with much nonsense from her children and could be very blunt about telling them so.

"All right, you don't have to come with me," Miranda generously decided. "But you still have to deliver messages to Catspaw for me, don't you?" Tattoo nodded. "Then deliver a message to him in the royal rooms, and I'll come with you. I'll tell you what it is on the way."

Tattoo pondered this for a minute and then walked resignedly to the stairs. Miranda followed him, feeling smug. She wasn't concerned that a lowly guard might think her behavior strange. Delivering eccentric orders to the servants was a cherished privilege of the upper class, and Miranda had seen a great deal of it during her childhood.

"What's the message?" asked Tattoo as they climbed the stairs.

"Let's see," reflected the girl. "Tell the King that I hope his day is going well."

"I have to tell Marak that?" Tattoo looked glum.

"The goblin King will be very pleased," Miranda stated with breezy self-assurance, and she was quite sure that he would be. Catspaw was making no secret of his fondness for her: his attention was becoming real fascination. There were many things in her new life about which Miranda felt dubious, but the new King's regard was not one of them.

Keeping pace with the goblin guard, she climbed steps until she was short of breath. The royal rooms were on one of the highest levels of the palace. That palace fooled the girl into thinking it was a normal building because of its rooms, halls, and stairways, but Miranda already understood that it was much more than it appeared to be when viewed from its ornamental gardens. Many of those hallways burrowed deep into the rock. Its contours could never have been built aboveground; they had been mined away.

The pair arrived at the elaborately decorated royal floor of the palace, and Miranda studied the stately hallway with pleasure. On one side, great square windows without glass stretched from ceiling to floor, and across from them stood two uniformed guards, watching the set of golden doors that led to the royal rooms. The brilliant mosaics and gemstone-encrusted furnishings shamed the Taj Mahal. Not a single human monarch in the entire world lived in such splendor, and Miranda enjoyed thinking of her imminent residency there. The life of a goblin King's Wife, she decided, did have certain tangible rewards.

Tattoo conferred with the door guards and then passed her on his way back to the stairs. "Marak isn't here," he said bitterly. "He's in the palace town, inspecting some hybrid grain." He didn't add that this meant an hour's walk to deliver her inconsequential message, but Miranda was fully aware of it.

"What a lucky thing for you not to be stuck so long in that boring hallway," she noted. "I'll see you later then." The young goblin's unhappy expression as he walked off indicated that he viewed this last statement of hers as a threat.

Miranda's goal was the balcony overlooking the lake valley, on the other side of those stately windows. This valley came closest to the world that Miranda had left behind. Hollow Lake, in which she had splashed and played as a little girl, was a large oval body of water several miles across. Beneath it lived the goblins, in simple villages and farms, raising the crops and animals that fed them and the dwarves. The shores of the lake were like mountains hemming them in, the impassable boundaries of their deep round valley. The waters of the lake were the only sky that most of them ever saw, a trembling firmament of shifting indigo twilight by day, and a bland and featureless velvet blackness by night.

Miranda stood with her hand on the cold stone of the window frame, taking in the view across the round valley. Here, birds flew, although they took care not to fly too high, or they would find themselves swimming instead. Here, plants grew, although no trees could survive. And here, if nowhere else in the kingdom, the sun shone—after a fashion.

This valley was a dim and murky place, the sunlight reaching it through the filter of deep water. Only when the sun stood straight overhead did the water become more translucent. For just a little while, the aquamarine gloom lightened. The difference wasn't dramatic, but she had already come to treasure it. More than anything else that she had lost, Miranda missed the sun.

But today, she found to her dismay that the balcony was occupied. Marak's widow, Kate, was already there. Miranda felt shy and reserved in the presence of the dignified woman. She knew that Catspaw thought the world of his mother.

"Hello, Miranda," said Kate. "I'm glad to see you." Miranda greeted her politely in return and sat down a little distance away. Now, here was a perfect King's Wife, she thought, a bit overawed. Kate worked constantly for her people, and everyone adored her. She was graceful and formal without seeming in the least snobbish. Miranda reflected unhappily that Catspaw's mother probably never gave selfish orders to her door guards.

"I love to come here," Kate volunteered. "It's the only place in the whole kingdom where one can see a real horizon. I hope you won't mind sharing it with me sometimes. My new balcony faces the gardens."

Of course, remembered Miranda: Marak's widow had just moved out of the royal rooms. She instantly felt worried and guilty about her own impending possession of them. Perhaps this important woman resented that. Miranda murmured something civil, and silence descended once again, but now she felt obliged to break it.

"I come here to see the sunlight," she confessed. "I like to see the valley brighten up at this time of day, but it looks as if today must be cloudy." The remarks were harmless enough, but her longing showed on her face, and now Kate looked as if she were the one feeling guilty.

"I'm so sorry," she answered. "I hate it that you can't go outside. Catspaw says that it's too dangerous to allow every King's Wife to go outside the way I do, but maybe he will make an exception now and then. I'll ask him to let you go outside with us on the next full moon night."

After her ghastly experience in the blackness of the Kings' crypt, Miranda could think of few things worse. "Please don't!" she exclaimed in horror. "I appreciate your thoughtfulness," she amended, blushing deeply, "but I wouldn't like to be outside at night. I'm afraid of the dark."

"Oh." The lovely woman stared at her, quite surprised. "Please excuse me for a moment," she said and left the balcony.

Miranda reflected in consternation on how rude she must have sounded. Up until then, she had hidden her phobia quite well. Now her future mother-in-law might use this information to torment her, just as her own mother had. She could hear Til's voice in her mind, elegant and scornful: Really, darling, what a stupid thing to say.

Then Kate was back, sitting down close beside her and clasping a bracelet around Miranda's wrist. "A dwarf made this for me," she explained. "It lights up if you're ever in the dark. I remember how dark it seemed when I first came here and how glad I was to have it with me. I'd like you to have it now."

Miranda studied the triple rope of diamonds, completely won over by the unexpected kindness. "Thank you," she said. "And I'm sorry," she added sincerely, "that you had to move out of your rooms."

"Oh, I don't mind," said Kate lightly. "All that gaudy decoration! That sort of display has never been to my taste." She gazed placidly over the valley while Miranda studied her out of the corner of her eye. Did she feel as betrayed as Miranda did about Marak's abandonment of them? He hadn't even spoken a word to her before climbing into his tomb.

"Doesn't it make you angry sometimes that he just walked away?" she ventured.

The beautiful woman turned toward her. Deep in those blue eyes, there was a preoccupied look, as if she weren't really paying attention. She seemed to be listening for certain footsteps, or the sound of a familiar voice. In a flash, Miranda understood why Marak's widow was handling her loss so well. Kate undoubtedly knew that her husband was dead—but part of her was still waiting for him.

"That who walked away, dear?" asked Kate mildly. Miranda didn't have the heart to answer.


A few days later, the girl sat with Catspaw in his library. While the busy goblin King recorded the day's decisions, writing left-handed because of his awkward paw, she ran her eyes over the closely packed shelves, scanning the long sets of matched volumes. She was bored with her inactivity and annoyed at her own boredom, and she wasn't feeling particularly gracious. But that didn't matter; she would have the right smile ready for her royal fiancé when he looked up at her.

With a slight frown, the goblin King took her hand and examined the jewelry she wore. Among his own gifts, he spied Kate's bracelet and touched it with a finger.

"Mother tells me you're afraid of the dark," he said. "I hadn't known."

Miranda was taken aback by the revelation and felt anxious about what it might mean.

"Did something here cause it?" he asked.

"No, it started when I was young," she answered reluctantly. Then she realized he had noticed her hesitation.

"How?" he demanded, and she decided that she had better tell him the truth.

"One day Mother was scolding me, and I told her I was glad that I was going away when I grew up. There were lots of things we couldn't say because of the magic, but there were still things that we could say.

"Mother always hated to hear that sort of thing—I don't know why; as much as she disliked me, you'd think she would have been glad, too. This time, she glared at me and said, 'You'll go away, all right. You'll be locked up forever in the dark. Let's try it out and see how you like it.'

"She dragged me downstairs to the cellar and shut me into a room. Not one ray of light came in. Then she stood outside and talked to me while I screamed and pounded on the door. 'There are things in the dark that can't come out in the day,' she told me. 'You're cursed. You'll never escape.'"

"She could say that because it was a lie," growled Catspaw. "The magic only blocked her from speaking the truth about the kingdom. It's unfortunate that Til is part of my family; I can't take goblin revenge. All the same, I don't see why her life should be going so well. I'll have to give the matter some thought."

"I'm sure she didn't keep me there very long," Miranda told him, oddly uncomfortable over the calm threat. "Papa let me out. He was yelling at Mother, just as upset as I was. He was probably afraid of what Marak would do. But Mother was very cool about it. I remember she laughed at him. She said, 'Maybe now she'll want to stay with me.'

"She was right, too. I was afraid to see the sun go down, terrified all night, and the nurse wouldn't let me keep a candle. I crept out of bed and huddled in a patch of moonlight, thinking about how Marak always visited after dark. The next time he came, I didn't run to greet him, and I cried when he walked into the room. It sounds silly, but it was the first time I noticed how different he was from everyone else."

"What did he do?" asked Catspaw with interest. "Did he work any spells?"

"I don't think so," she answered. "He was just himself. He held me on his lap, and he talked to me—" Her voice wavered because of the lump that had formed in her throat. She stopped abruptly and studied the diamond bracelet. Sometimes it still hurt terribly to think of him.

Catspaw leaned toward her as she glanced up and held her gaze with his own. "My spells keep the lamps lit, Miranda," he said quietly. "I won't ever leave you in the dark."

Miranda was touched by his consideration. She hadn't imagined the goblin King like this. She saw her royal suitor as someone to charm and impress, but she hadn't realized that she would have to trust him. Maybe he wouldn't always seem like such a stranger, she thought with relief. She remembered Marak's last talk with her: Catspaw will be all that to you.

"That night when I was frightened, Marak told me about my future," she recalled. "It was the first time that he said I would be a King's Wife."

"Then I remember that night as well," said Marak Catspaw. "It's one of the only times I saw Father worried. I was up late, studying political economy or some such thing, when he came into my room. 'You've got to marry that girl,' he said, shaking his head. 'I just promised her that you would.'"

Miranda felt startled. "I thought he knew my future," she protested. "He sounded so sure of it. I thought he could see it in my face."

Catspaw smiled. "He was just being a King," he said. "Kings are never supposed to seem uncertain. I don't see anything about your future in your face. I only see the character from the Door Spell."

"You can see that?" wondered Miranda, rubbing her forehead. "I didn't know it left a mark."

"It's gold, and it shines a little," said the goblin, tracing over the script character with his fingertip. "I think it looks attractive."

Miranda pondered that, unsure how she felt about displaying a symbol that she herself couldn't see. She wondered how many other goblins could read it, and whether it really was attractive. Catspaw continued to study her, hesitating over something. If Kings weren't supposed to seem uncertain, he was breaking his own rule.

Then he leaned down and kissed her.

It was a nice kiss, Miranda decided. It made her feel appreciated, and she felt affectionate in return. For once, the smile that she gave her fiancé wasn't a charming mask but an expression of honest feeling instead.

The goblin seemed to have enjoyed the kiss, too. He looked excited and resolute. "Only two more months until our wedding," he remarked. "Then I'll erase this—" He touched the Door symbol— "and write the King's Wife character there."

"Will I notice any difference?" she asked.

"Yes and no," admitted Marak Catspaw. "The doors still won't let you go outside, but they'll treat you with more respect."

A little uncertain, Miranda thought about being his wife, living in luxury, locked in by those iron doors. There certainly wasn't much left to worry about, was there? What a tidy future. She just wished she would stop feeling so edgy about it.

It was Sable who finally pieced together the clues and saw through Miranda's pretense. The elf woman listened to her son Tattoo's descriptions of the erratic behavior of the King's Bride and felt wholeheartedly sorry for the girl. It was clear to her that Miranda was struggling to find her place in the kingdom, and this was something Sable could understand. She herself had not had an easy time finding her place in life.

The black-haired woman combined in one person the sensitivity of an elf and the frankness of a goblin. Polite and distrustful, Miranda never mentioned her problems, so Sable did it for her. "Goblins take getting used to," she told Miranda matter-of-factly, and the girl felt as if a weight had dropped from her shoulders. Miranda was too reserved to come by for a visit, so the elf woman kept inviting her over until the visits became routine.

"You're losing weight," Sable remarked one morning as she opened her door for the girl. "I have bread and cheese for you in the basket on the table. Tattoo," she added crisply, leaning out in the hallway to speak to the young man posted at Miranda's door, "I've mended your Guard cloak—again. Come by for it once you're off duty, and be more careful next time."

Miranda walked into Sable's forest room and looked around with pleasure. The large space was full of dwarf-made trees, hung with tangled cloth greenery, and small fish swam in an ornamental pool by the door. The illusion of a stretch of shadowy woodland worked particularly well for Miranda because she couldn't distinguish much in the dim light. She sat down on a cushion at the strange low table that was only a few inches from the ground.

"One week left until your wedding," noted the elf woman. "It's a shame that it won't be held at the full moon. Weddings and full moons belong together."

Miranda gave a grimace and rubbed her palms where the knives would cut them. "I'll be glad when it's over. Catspaw says he will be, too."

"He's Marak now," Sable observed. "You should call him that." Miranda just frowned by way of an answer. She hadn't yet promoted him into that exalted position, as the elf woman knew perfectly well.

A small silence fell over the room as Miranda pulled food from the basket and Sable began working on one of her math problems. She sketched it out rapidly in three dimensions a few inches above the table, silvery lines and circles appearing as she drew. Then she set it all into motion.

Miranda watched the silver figure spin in the air, wobbling slightly as it turned. "Sable, did you always like it here?" she asked.

"I was frantic when I first came," the woman answered absently, jotting down numbers. She paused and gazed off into space. "I remember how hard it was to get used to the bright light. My eyes would start stinging after a few hours."

"Bright!" murmured Miranda. She could barely distinguish colors in the gloom. "Did you ever try to escape?"

"No," answered Sable. "I couldn't go back. My people would have hunted me down. You don't know what elf men are like, Miranda. They're horrible brutes. I don't think they're born with a heart in their bodies."

Miranda pondered this interesting disclosure. "Isn't Seylin an elf man?" she asked. "He's not a brute. Marak never said that elf men were horrible, just that they were pretty and silly."

"Of course Seylin isn't an elf," replied Sable. "He's a goblin; he just looks like an elf. And Marak never had to live with them like I did."

All in all, it was a strange coincidence that Miranda learned what elf men were like that day. That very night, an elf man returned to his ancestral home, and Miranda's tidy future began to crumble.


Marak Catspaw and his two lieutenants stood outside the cliff face that concealed the entrance to the goblins' underground kingdom, studying the early night sky. The northern constellation that the elves called the King's Throne was glowing very brightly. The W of stars appeared to flicker and flash.

Seylin was beside himself with excitement. "It's the traditional summons to a truce meeting!" he exclaimed. "A meeting between goblins and elves. But how?"

"And not just any summons, but the highest level," reflected Marak Catspaw. "Adviser, what do you advise me to do?"

"Go, of course," replied Seylin. "The goblin King always went personally to a King's Throne summons. And I certainly advise you to bring us along. I wouldn't miss this for the world."

The three of them walked through the whispering forest, not far from the Hallow Hill mansion where Til was holding a supper party, and up the hill toward the old truce circle, wondering what it might contain. Its double ring of ancient oak trees guarded that secret well, the massive trunks blocking completely any view of what lay within. Marak Catspaw was pleased and intrigued. Some elves still existed, then, and they still remembered their manners, unlike Sable and Irina's savage band. Perhaps his reign would prove important. Richard was remembering the last time he had faced elves, and they had tried to turn him into a rabbit. They wouldn't find that so easy to do this time. Seylin was attempting to recall useful lore from his studies, but the thought of elves blotted out all else. His powerful elf blood gave him a powerful interest in the subject. The goblin scholars believed that he himself had found the very last elves thirty years before. It had been the disappointment of his life that they were so primitive.

The men passed through the rings of gnarled, hoary trees that enclosed the crown of the hill and walked to the center of the large, open circle of turf within. The half moon lit them with its pale light. A single elf stepped out of the shadows and walked over to join them.

When Seylin had hunted for elves in his youth, he had hunted for an elf like this. The man was noble and stately, and he was dressed as his people had always dressed. He wore a sleeveless, belted tunic and loose breeches of dark green cloth, cross-gartered up to the knee, leather straps wrapping around the lower legs in X patterns to hold the breeches close to the calves. His short boots were of soft deer hide. Over tunic and breeches, he wore a dark green cloak, the hood pushed back, and at his belt was a proper elf knife sheathed in leather. The belt lacked the sophistication of a buckle. It simply crossed through a loop in one end and knotted over itself, the free end hanging. No metal, noted Seylin: the cloak tied with leather thongs. True elves, he knew, hated metal.

The man who wore this true elf clothing was a true elf in every sense. The smooth skin of his pale face glimmered with a silvery sheen in the moonlight, and his eyes were large and black. His black locks clustered around the pale, high forehead and fringed the edge of his face, just brushing the cheekbones. In the back, thick, loosely curling hair just reached the lowered hood. Seylin shared with this stranger the impatient eyebrows that slanted up where a human's eyebrows slanted down and the well-formed, pointed ears that showed through the black hair. But even to Seylin, who saw an elf every day in the mirror, this stranger's appearance was remarkable. Strong and strikingly handsome, he possessed a cold authority that demanded respect. The chronicles told tales of great warrior lords who had slaughtered goblins like sheep. This man could be such a warrior, concluded Seylin.

The goblin King merely noted a properly dressed elf man who had the black eyes of an aristocrat. Good, he thought: a rival with manners and distinction. His reign might turn out to be quite interesting.

For a moment, none of them spoke. Seylin was too excited. Richard knew his place. Marak Catspaw didn't intend to speak first. What the stranger felt, knew, or intended was impossible to guess. His expression was very guarded. His eyes betrayed only the slightest gleam at the sight of the goblins, the faintest hint of fascinated distaste.

"I have to speak to Marak, the goblin King," he informed them in English.

"I am Marak, the goblin King," replied Catspaw. "These are Richard and Seylin, my lieutenants."

The elf turned toward Seylin, his manner relaxing somewhat. "I know of you," he said. "You are the goblin who showed himself to be a friend to my people. Even though you raided for brides, you didn't murder the men. You left them in safety and provided them with supplies."

"We did that on the orders of the old goblin King," answered Seylin.

The elf paused, and his expression once again became guarded. "The old goblin King," he murmured, looking at Catspaw. "You are a new goblin King. And unmarried."

His tone was hostile. Seylin considered the matter from his point of view. The most dangerous thing in the elf world was an unmarried goblin King. The Kings had always tried to capture brides from the very highest noble families.

"A good guess," replied Catspaw calmly. "And who are you?"

"My people call me Nir," said the elf. This revealed nothing. Nir was only a polite term of address, the elvish word for lord.

"What sort of lord are you?" demanded Seylin. "Did your ancestors lead a camp? What is your proper name?" But the elf just glanced at him and then turned back to the goblin King. He plainly intended to stay with business.

"I am here to propose a treaty," he announced. "My people were widely scattered after the death of our King, and we have been hunted down to a handful. Over the last twenty years, I have gathered all of the remaining elves."

"All of the elves you could find," corrected Marak Catspaw.

"All of the remaining elves," declared the lord in a firm voice. "In order for my people to survive, we have to come back to our own land and live in our own forest. I need the goblin King to swear that he will do what is best for the elves. He must swear not to hunt us or allow brides to be taken during his reign. We must be able to live freely on our land, with no goblins spying on us."

"How many elves are left?" asked Marak Catspaw.

The lord hesitated as if he were ashamed. "Sixty-seven," he replied bitterly.

"Such a treaty is reasonable," mused the goblin King. "We couldn't raid such a small number for brides and expect the elves to survive it."

"But that isn't all," continued the stranger. "You goblins took the magic books from my people so that we couldn't defend ourselves. We lack many spells that we need to survive, spells for healing and for making our way of life. I must have those books back."

"That you can't have," answered the goblin King. "We use those books ourselves."

The elf lord's expression hardened. "The books belong to us, and you have your own magic," he said heatedly. "What do you need with ours?"

"We can work elf magic, too," said Marak Catspaw, "and the spells are essential to the care of the elves who live with us."

At this mention of captives, the distaste in the stranger's eyes became definite. He glanced away from them, looking over their heads at the stars.

The goblin King gave the matter further thought. "I well understand your need for the spells," he concluded. "I would be willing to give you copies."

The elf lord looked at him again. "An elf should copy what elves have written," he replied. "I would rather copy the books myself. They will be safe in my care and promptly returned. But I must have writing materials and the materials for books. My people don't yet have these things."

Marak Catspaw was well aware of the importance of the elves to the goblins. The discovery of sixty-seven elves still alive was an event of tremendous significance. Catspaw didn't mind meeting the lord's demands, either, and even augmenting them with his own concerned vigilance. But the new King was growing tired of this pretty stranger's arrogant attitude.

"The elves are asking a great deal of the goblins," he remarked blandly. "What do they intend to do in return?" Nothing, he was sure, and he wanted to make this elf admit that and swallow a nice dose of humility.

But the elf lord didn't look in the least humiliated. He glared at Marak Catspaw. "We will give this unmarried goblin King a bride," he retorted.

"A what?" gasped Seylin. Marak Catspaw just stared. The elves never sanctioned the marriages of their women with goblins. Goblins stole elves. They didn't accept them.

"I will give you a bride," repeated the elf lord emphatically, his handsome face set in a look of bitterness and contempt. "My people are too poor and too few to wage battle. We won't survive without our own land and magic, but we aren't strong enough to take them. I will give you one bride in exchange for these things. I have no other choice."

He dropped his gaze and stared at the ground, plainly overcome with despair at the thought. Good, thought Marak Catspaw. He's taking that dose of humility after all.

"Sixty-seven elves," mused the King. "But how many of those could be brides?"

"I've been forbidding the marriages," replied the elf lord. "Four women are unmarried, and one is old enough for marriage at the full moon."

"Five women," considered Catspaw. "Is any from the high families?"

The elf studied him with loathing. "I don't know their ancestry," he replied.

"What color are their eyes?" put in Seylin. Now those black eyes glared at him.

"Blue. Gray. Green. Blue. Green," he enunciated carefully.

"It doesn't sound as if they are from the nobility," said the goblin King. "I reserve the right to take any female child, even a baby."

"To keep like a penned sheep," retorted the elf lord angrily. "Then I demand a right as well. I want to see the elves you already have penned up. I need to see for myself that these women are not mistreated before I let another one fall into your hands." He glanced down at the goblin King's hands as he spoke, saw the great paw, and looked away with a grimace.

"Very well," replied Marak Catspaw. "When will we meet?"

"I can return with my band in six nights," replied the elf. "We will be here on the night of the new moon."

"Then I wish you a safe journey," concluded the goblin King. He turned and left the truce circle. As he and his lieutenants reached the outer ring of trees, he glanced down at his chief adviser. Follow him, he told Seylin in his thoughts.

Seylin gave the barest of nods and dropped behind as they walked into the forest, assuming his cat shape and cloaking himself in shadow. He waited a prudent amount of time and then crept through the forest to the other side of the circle. The elf was already gone. Seylin hissed the Tracking Spell. Now he could see the elf lord's footprints, bright against the dark grass, only a few minutes old. Seylin didn't follow them directly; this elf might be watching for him. Instead, he slunk on his belly within sight of those prints, keeping to the thickest shade under the trees.

In the morning, he woke up and stretched luxuriously from head to toe. He was very stiff. Stiff and cold. He had fallen asleep out in the woods. Seylin glanced down, a little confused. He had fallen asleep as a cat!

He jumped and sputtered as memory broke in on him. The elf lord! The tracks! What had gone wrong? Fluffy tail drooping, he looked around. The great trees of the truce circle towered behind him. The elf had stopped him before he had gone thirty feet.


As Miranda came into the royal rooms to accompany Catspaw to breakfast, she could hear Seylin speaking loudly and a little frantically. "…Not just any lord, either," he was protesting. "I'm telling you, goblin King, he's one of the great elf lords, a descendent of the elf King's own lieutenants!"

"Maybe," Catspaw answered, unruffled and a little amused. "But you should tear yourself away from your books, adviser, and practice your spells a little more. Great elf lord or not, you gave yourself away."

Miranda put her head in at the door, and the two men looked up, startled. The Guard, knowing that she would be the King's Wife in a week, didn't bother to announce her anymore.

"Who is a great elf lord?" she asked. There was a slight pause.

"An elf has turned up," replied the goblin King. "But don't mention it to anyone, Miranda. It shouldn't be known."

"Of course not," she said with a smile. "Are you ready for breakfast?" There was another slight pause.

"No, I don't have time," answered Catspaw. "Go without me."

So Miranda went on her way. She was feeling cheerful this morning. A great elf lord, she thought idly. She liked the sound of that.

The men watched the door shut. Then they stared at it for a few seconds.

"For pity's sake, Seylin!" exclaimed the goblin King. "What do I do about Miranda? I don't want to marry some wailing elf girl. I want to marry her!"

"I'm fond of her, too," agreed Seylin bleakly. "But the King has to think of his people, and you know what an elf bride means for the magic of the Heir."

"I'll tell you this, I refuse to give her up for some commonplace elf," threatened Catspaw. "Not for anything less than a lord's daughter." He sighed. "But I suppose we have to plan for that possibility."

"She will still be a strong human bride," noted Seylin. "Miranda's settling in well, and she'll get over her disappointment. She'd make an excellent bride for one of the strong elf-crosses, to extend the elvish bloodlines. Tattoo would be a good choice. He has his father's pleasant nature, and she knows him well. She and Sable are always together."

"Tattoo and my Miranda," growled the goblin King. "I don't like it at all! That infuriating elf! Why couldn't he have shown up next week? Why did he feel he had to offer a bride? I would have signed his treaty."

"In the meantime," said Seylin, "may I suggest that you embark on that triumphal tour of the dwarf mines that new goblin Kings always take? There's no sense making Miranda suspicious if this all comes to nothing. You can be gone the whole six days."

"Ah, yes," sighed Catspaw. "Days of being dragged through endless miles of four-foot-high corridors on a little stone sledge. But it's best to get it out of the way before these elves come back. I don't want you and Richard to speak of this business with anyone but each other, and have the elves and elf-human crosses assembled near the main door on the evening of the new moon."

Meanwhile, Miranda sat with Kate at the table overlooking the banquet hall. She was becoming more used to seeing monsters at mealtime, but it still affected her appetite. Instead, she studied Kate's golden hair and perfect porcelain skin. Marak's beautiful widow showed not the least tendency to age. Perhaps that was a benefit of being elvish.

"Tell me something about the elves tonight," said the sleepy girl as she snuggled down under the warmth of the covers. It was cold in her room, and she could see her breath when she talked.

Her ugly guardian smiled at her from his chair and shook his striped hair out of his face. "What do you want to know about the silly elves? All right. Here's your story. Once a very ugly human man met a very pretty elf man. The human was poor and miserable, gathering firewood in the winter twilight. His face had been disfigured by a ghastly burn. The elf was magnificent, tall and noble, and he was disgusted at the sight of the poor man. He reached out his hand to work magic, and the human knew that his last hour had come.

"'Spare me!' he cried, dropping his sticks and falling at the feet of the elf. 'I know I look awful, but I'm a very intelligent man.'

"'You, intelligent?' scoffed the elf. 'Then I'll let you go if you can answer a question. How many stars are in the sky above us?'

"'A hundred thousands,' replied the human without a second's hesitation.

"'That's not right,' declared the elf triumphantly. 'It's not even close.'

"'Of course it's not right,' agreed the human. 'How would I know something like that? But you just said I had to give an answer. You never said it had to be right.'

"Then the elf laughed heartily because elves love jokes and pranks. 'You may go,' he told the human. 'But not looking like that.' And he healed the human's face."

"What happened when the human got home?" she asked. "Did his family know who he was? Were they glad?"

"I can't tell you that," Marak admitted. "The human didn't write that story, the elf did. That was Aganir Dalhamun, the elf King named Dust Cloud."

Miranda smiled at the memory. It didn't hurt so much to think about him now. She looked at the hideous shapes filling the huge room and felt a surge of affection. They were Marak's goblins, after all. She loved them for that. And he had been right, just as he always was. She belonged here, even without him.

Copyright 2005 by Clare B. Dunkle. Text courtesy of Henry Holt & Co.

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